The tiny village of Neiden, Norway, isn’t usually a place that people visit in January. Far north of the Arctic Circle, it might be 25 degrees below 0 on a cold day. Apart from a handful of homes, and a lot of snow, there’s nothing there. But this winter, the Hotel Neiden was full.
The hotel, a bare-bones lodge, was the temporary home of 96 refugees, some of the 5,500 people who crossed the border from Russia into Norway late last year. While most refugees from Syria and Afghanistan come to Europe by sea–since the beginning of 2015, more than 1 million people have come to Greece from Turkey alone–a fraction have taken the northern route instead.
It’s cheaper, and somewhat safer, although so cold that at least one person waiting to cross the border into nearby Finland froze to death.
Photographer Alessandro Iovino decided to document the experience of those traveling through Russia. “As a photographer, I thought I had the responsibility to understand a little better the situation of the refugees–this migration,” he says. “But I wanted to do it in an original way.” The thousands of rubber boats landing in Greece had been well covered. So when Iovino heard that some refugees were crossing from Russia instead, he tried to find them, traveling to Moscow to follow their path.
“What I aimed was to try to make the same effort they made–try to walk the same long distances,” he says. From the Russian city of Murmansk, refugees were heading north to a small mining town called Nikel, and then paying someone to help them cross the border.
For most people, that involved buying a bike: It’s illegal to cross the border on foot under Russian law, and illegal for drivers to bring undocumented immigrants in a car under Norwegian law. But riding a bike was a loophole–at least until the Norwegian government started automatically deporting anyone who crossed without a transit visa. By late January, Russia closed its border with Norway.
The refugees in the photographs at the Hotel Neiden made it before the border closed, and were sent to the hotel by officials. Once there, they had nothing to do but wait.
The village is literally almost empty. “There’s no supermarket, no petrol station, nothing,” says Iovino. “What they really do during the day is nothing, watching TV and waiting. They can’t even say I’m going outside, because it’s too cold . . . they want to go to school, they want to start a life. That’s why they came to Norway.”
The hotel is one of six refugee centers in the region, all privately run and getting a stipend from the government. The centers often lack enough basic supplies. “They give you food, which is not enough for a cat,” says Mansour Hanna Youssef, who stayed at the hotel until he was sent to another center nearby.
Youssef wanted to work, and when he made it to a slightly larger town, he begged for a job. “We went to supermarkets, and I said, ‘We just want to work for food,'” he says. “Not money, just give us food. They said, ‘No, we cannot do that.'”
By February, Norway reached an agreement with Russia to start sending refugees back, despite objections from human rights groups that argued Russia would just deport them back to the unsafe countries, such as Syria, that they were originally fleeing.
In 2015, more than 30,000 people applied for asylum in Norway; 10,000 of those were from Syria, and almost 7,000 from Afghanistan. In the beginning of the year, most applications were granted. But that quickly changed. Now, the majority of applicants are deported.
At the same time, Norway has contributed generously to refugee relief elsewhere (it gave 385% of what Oxfam consider a country’s “fair share” in 2015; the U.S. gave 76% of its share). But many wonder why a country as rich as Norway–with a per capita GDP twice that of the U.S.–can’t also help support those who have crossed its borders.
It’s a question many have about Europe as a whole, which started sending refugees in Greece back to Turkey on April 4. Doctors Without Borders called the plan so inhumane that it pulled out of Lesvos in protest. The EU plans to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey in return. But the UNHCR argues that sending others back en masse is a violation of international law.
Some, like Youssef, ended up going back to Syria from Norway voluntarily; he says he is one of the lucky few in a position where that was even a possibility. “Thank God I’m alright, but not for so long,” he says. “Probably I’ll have to ride the sea again if the situation is not solved in this country.”
All Photos: Alessandro Iovino